Year end: a time for client and staff engagement

The end of the year is a good time to take stock, and to take steps to improve your accounting firm's staff engagement.

The year-end offers good opportunities to build relationships. Here's how accounting firms can make the most of the time and improve their client and staff engagement.

The year-end holiday season is a hectic time of year, but one that offers businesses a valuable chance to build engagement with clients and staff.

Mogg Osborne is an accounting practice based in Cobram, a small town on the Murray River in rural Victoria. Many of its clients are from the local agricultural industry, a diverse group of wheat and dairy farmers, graziers and orchardists. The practice also works with small business clients in other locations around Australia – particularly Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Every year, Mogg Osborne hosts Christmas drinks for its local client base.

“It’s about giving back and cementing relationships,” says firm director Rod McLeod CPA. “It allows our clients to get to know our team members better. They get to know faces other than front of house [staff], client managers and directors. Clients really enjoy that.”

Ian Raspin FCPA, director at Melbourne-headquartered BNR Partners, meets senior executives from the practice’s largest clients two or three times a year, usually once in the lead-up to Christmas.

Raspin is careful to treat relationship management as a year-round activity, rather than focusing all his efforts on the busy December period.

Like many businesses, BNR Partners used to send expensive hampers to clients at Christmas. These days, Raspin is more selective about how the firm reaches out to clientele. A bottle of champagne as a thank you gift at any other time of the year can have more impact, he reasons.

“Your clients are receiving lots of gifts from people in the lead-up to Christmas, which means you just become part of a large pool of people doing the same thing.”

One tradition he observes is sending Christmas cards. In 2017, BNR Partners’ Christmas card featured a team photo which, Raspin says, is an effective way for clients to gauge team size and put faces to names.

“It is not unusual to walk into offices of some of our clients and see a Christmas card from a few years ago still hanging on their office wall. It’s great marketing.”

Standing out from the crowd is a challenge Melbourne firm SEIVA approaches in a unique way. In 2018, the Southbank-based practice, which services mostly small businesses, is hosting a book launch in place of traditional Christmas drinks with clients.

Created in-house, the book is based on a 28-day challenge to help small business owners become more positive and mindful in the workplace. Personal wellbeing is a pillar of SEIVA’s mission to “make people happy”, explains managing director Brent Szalay.

“It’s life-changing,” Szalay says of the book. “The purpose of our whole business is around leadership and helping others be happier. This is really significant for us and our clients.” 

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Celebrating with staff

At SEIVA, staff Christmas celebrations centre around two values: having fun and giving. The fun element is self-explanatory, and this year the team will head to Southern Cross Station to board a specially-designed train with a DJ and a cocktail lounge for its party.

Every year, the team also incorporates an act of charity into the season’s festivities. Last year, staff forwent gifts and instead took presents to people at a local homeless shelter. This year, team members are tossing up between making toys to donate to children in need or cooking meals for a charitable cause.

“That’s really important to our values of giving at Christmas, not just receiving,” Szalay says.

Christmas is also an opportunity for employers to recognise the contribution of staff over the year. Such recognition is more important than gifts, Szalay maintains, and each year he gives a speech acknowledging every employee’s contribution to the business.

McLeod believes rewarding staff at Christmas for their hard work is part of building a workplace culture that remains positive year-round. It also breaks down barriers between staff. 

“It gets everyone mixing more,” he says. “We have 40 staff and they don’t all talk to each other on a daily basis.”

While staff recognition at Christmas is critical, Raspin says “it’s equally, if not more important, to also recognise the importance and achievement of staff and your team throughout the year, and how much you really appreciate them”.

Raspin is happy to host a staff Christmas party and provide gifts for employees, but he says these types of gestures are more effective at other times of the year when there isn’t the same sense of expectation associated with the Christmas period.

“We do a number of different things through the year, such as team lunches at a local restaurant, random movie tickets, dining gifts or corporate massages,” Raspin explains.

Indeed, he recently embarked on a series of one-on-one lunches with every team member. “It's important that people get that acknowledgement,” he emphasises.

Need to knows for employers

Christmas activities, particularly when alcohol and travel are involved, pose a series of legal issues for employers.

“Employers should be aware that when they organise and pay for an event, they still have a duty of care to employees and may be liable for any inappropriate behaviour exercised by employees,” says Jessica Rose, a lawyer at McCullough Robertson.

“Workers injured on their way home from a work Christmas party may also be entitled to make a workers’ compensation claim. Organisations should take all reasonable steps to prevent any misconduct and should demonstrate a commitment to ensure the health and safety of all those involved in the event,” she says.

Before the function, circulate an organisation-wide email with event details and a reminder that all employees must adhere to the organisation’s policies and procedures. Specifically refer employees to the current codes of conduct and policies covering work, health and safety, social media, sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying. Once the event is underway, ensure responsible service of alcohol is observed, enough food is served, and travel is provided if long distances are involved.

The spirit of Christmas

It’s important to remember that a major priority at Christmas for most staff is family. 

“We always try and break up a few days prior to Christmas to provide staff with a day or two of shopping and preparation time, and return a week or so into January,” Raspin says. 

“The importance of family is one of our values, and this ensures staff can have time with their families at this special time of year.”

In Cobram, the Mogg Osborne team knocks off at lunchtime on the last day before Christmas closure and heads to the local cricket club for a family luncheon. A jumping castle is provided to entertain young children, while older kids play cricket. It’s a relaxed event to ensure the working year ends on a positive note.

While businesses can reap benefits from hosting activities at Christmas, Szalay sees the season as more of a chance to express gratitude. It’s a time to “have a bit of fun, say thank you and enjoy people’s company”, he says.

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